When I began shooting regularly, my parents had a handful of guns in the top of their closet. Most of those have since moved to my brother’s gun safe. One that I toted home with me is a Winchester 69a that belonged to my Grandpa. It’s a .22 bolt action with a five-round detachable box magazine. It will feed and fire shorts, longs, and long rifle cartridges. It’s been fitted with a Lyman micrometer peep rear sight. With its 26-inch barrel, it’s very quiet to shoot and is a serious tack-driver. Indeed, this rifle has taken more wild game than all the other guns in the house combined. For one-shot drops on rabbits and squirrel at 50 to 100-yards, I see that trend continuing for quite some time in the future. The gun has no serial number, so we know that it’s a pre-’68 for sure. Without citing sources from my many internet wanderings, it appears that Winchester replaced the model 69 with the 69a in 1937, so it can’t be any older than that. It also seems that they changed the angle on the bolt handle somewhere around 1954, and this copy has the old style bolt handle. So, that gives us a 17-year window in which this rifle was made 60 to 77 years ago.
That’s it between a couple 10/22s in a line up of rifles. There were the accumulation of dents in the wood, worn lacquer, and faded bluing, but it’s all honest wear. For as much action as this gun has seen, it’s in very nice condition. Note how the bolt handle is in the white. That was blued from the factory.
As many of you already know, we recently hosted a blog shoot. We had the pistol range and clay throwing station same as years previous, but in addition to the 500-yard rifle range, we added a 100-yard rimfire rifle range with some swinging steel targets. There were several of us who lined up on the firing line with our .22 rifles to ping the swinging targets with a brace of guns that satisfactorily represented the last century in history. The Winchester has been wearing what’s left of the long strap of a M1907 sling (the other strap broke) that I rigged up as a basic sling until I can do something fancier. I went to sling up in a hasty seated position, and as I drew the front bead on the round plate that I intended to ring, I felt the sling slack off. It didn’t ‘pop’ so much as just kind of let go. My first thought was that the old leather had given out and I’d finally have to get a new one. I dropped the mag and cleared the chamber and stood up to inspect the damage.
As I did so, I chunk of walnut swung down, tethered to the rest of the stock by the still intact sling. And then, I remembered the small crack that I’d seen in the wood grain ever since I could remember this gun. The crack had run right where the lower butt plate screw went into the stock, about the same depth as where the rear sling swivel bottomed out in its hole. Upon closer inspection, it was obvious that it was indeed this old crack that had finally given up and let go. So, I bagged up the old gun. I wasn’t going to let it ruin the fun. We would deal with it later. When we were finished with our weekend, I pulled out the gun, took it down, and started pulling fixtures off the stock to get a better idea of what I was dealing with.
I really couldn’t have asked for a better break. In the above picture, you can see a few of the dents and dings in the wood. The butt plate is labeled “MOD 72” on the back side. When I was growing up, my dad worked on pianos for a living. I’ve seen him repair countless piano legs with similar breaks. Often, a leg would be cracked but not broken through. He found that the best way to approach that was to complete the break, glue and clamp it, and refinish after the fact. If simply gluing and clamping was sufficient to hold up a piano, particularly a concert grand or one with a heavy player mechanism, then I figured it would work just fine for the stock on a .22. I decided that if I was going to go to the trouble of gluing the stock, I may as well sand it down and refinish it. If I was going to bother doing that, I should probably steam out the dents. And, if I was going to refresh the stock that much, I may want to do something to the metal, even if only a little spot rebluing. Crap. What had I gotten myself into?
I got on the phone with my mom to explain what happened and propose my solution. It’s technically her rifle on long-term loan, so I didn’t want to do anything to the gun without talking it over with her first. We discussed that although the gun is sentimentally special and a great rifle to boot, this model is not particularly rare or valuable. I told her that although Winchester offered a couple different rear aperture sights optionally, that I believed this one was an aftermarket add on, as the gun also has the notch elevation adjustable rear sight dovetailed to the barrel. I also told her that it was wearing a model 72 butt plate, so it was probably made of mixed parts anyway. She agreed that it sounded like I had weighed the options and gave me the go-ahead. So, I started with some Gorilla brand wood glue. I went a little heavy on the glue. It was a mess.
It can be tough to get a good clamping angle on a piece like this, with non-parallel lines and ergonomic curves. On advice from my dad, I bought a package of rubber bands and put them around the stock one by one. I dabbed off excess glue as it bled from the crack as the rubber bands put more and more tension on the joint. You might not think of it, but you can get a lot of tension from a bunch of rubber bands. I used the whole package and not much wood was showing on that end of the gun when I got to the end of them.
I let that set up and cure for a couple of days before touching it again. When I unwrapped it, I was pretty pleased on how the joint came out. There was a light film of excess glue that had dried on the surface of the old lacquer, and the crack was still visible, but it was honestly tighter than it had been prior to breaking completely.
And then, I sanded to get the old finish off. I thought about using a chemical stripper, but that stuff is just nasty. So, I sanded.
And sanded some more.
When I had it clean and smooth, I steamed out the dents in the wood. A good clothing steam iron works great for this. Where I thought I was going to have to use wood filler, my 1800-watt Rowenta popped dents out with surprising ease. I put an old t-shirt between the foot plate of the iron and the wood, so I wouldn’t accidentally burn the wood. I don’t know if that’s really a danger, but I didn’t want to risk it. With the dents raised, the specs of lacquer that were trapped in them became like tiny plateaus on the wood that sanded off with little effort.
I decided to refinish with Formby’s Traditional Tung Oil Finish for a few reasons. Although this is anything but an actual, traditional, tung oil finish, it is a penetrative varnish, which should more or less get the look of the original lacquer finish, but should wind up more durable and protective in the end. There’s nothing so lovely as a hand-rubbed finish. Although I was attempting to be respectful of the original production, I was not trying to make the gun absolutely ‘correct.’ This one is a shooter, and I intend for it to be taking game and ringing steel for the next 60 to 77 years. The wood greedily sucked up the first few applications of the varnish, and I was able to apply about four coats right off the bat.
Over the course of the next week, I sanded with 1500-grit between coats and put an additional four or five applications on the stock. I did some simple clean-up on the magazine well plate and trigger guard. I wound up rebluing the magazine release with some cold blue solution, and I did some spot bluing on a couple places on the barrel and receiver. I also hit a spot that was worn thin on the trigger, and I reblued the bolt handle. I’ve had mixed luck with cold bluing in the past, so I was quite happy how this came out.
After the final applications of wood finish, I let it rest for a few days to cure. After it had a chance to set up, I reinstalled the barreled action in the wood, and reinstalled the furnishings. Everyone who has seen it has been impressed. When Teen Bot saw it for the first time after completion, he didn’t even recognize it as the same gun and thought that I’d bought another rifle!
I’m really pleased with the way it came out. Mom seems to approve too. Although, I can feel just a little bit of shift between the wood and metal that I don’t recall from before. I haven’t shot it yet, but if it lacks accuracy that it had before, I may want to bed the action. That and, it needs a new M1907 style sling. It’s nice to think that perhaps Teen Bot’s grandchildren will be shooting rabbits and squirrels with this same gun someday. It was more of a project than I originally counted on, but I’d say it was well worth it.